As the self-appointed champions of the “politics of kindness,” liberal activists and publicists have “successfully weaponized compassion” and regularly wield that weapon against conservatism as the “politics of cruelty, greed, and callousness” when conservatives question the efficacy — or oppose expansion — of the welfare state. So argues William Voegeli in The Case Against Liberal Compassion.

Census Bureau data puts total federal, state and local government welfare spending at $3 trillion in 2011, or just under $10,000 per American, “much of it spent on the many millions of American who are nowhere near being impoverished, insecure, or suffering,” writes Voegeli.

If the point of liberalism were to alleviate suffering, as opposed to preening about one’s abhorrence of suffering and proud support for government programs designed to reduce it, liberals would get up every morning determined to reduce the proportion of that $3 trillion outlay that ought to be helping the poor but is instead being squandered in some way, including by being showered on people who aren’t poor.

Delving into the definitions of “compassion,” Voegeli points to the fatal flaws in the politics of kindness’s focus on empathy at the expense of outcomes:

  • Empathizers can “feel” better about “doing” something to alleviate another’s suffering even when the sufferers do not “fare” any better. The “politics of kindness” has little interest in accomplishing results for the sufferers.
  • Empathizers can “acquire a vested interest in the study, management and perpetuation … of sufferers’ problems” for their own self-regard and esteem. When that happens, “the helpers and the helped are endlessly, increasingly co-dependent.”
  • Empathizers can begin to value compassion in terms of the self-validation it offers to them as good, decent and admirable people, wholly ignoring the inefficiency of programs in reducing the suffering of others. In the “politics of kindness,” once they’ve voted for, given a speech about, written an editorial endorsing, or held forth at a dinner party on the salutary generosity of some program to ‘address’ someone’s problem, their work is done, and they can feel the rush of their own pious reaction.

The question conservatives should be asking is, why aren’t the “liberals who build, operate, defend, and seek to expand this [welfare] machine” outraged that it works so poorly to alleviate poverty and suffering? Don’t they care?

For more, read Voegeli’s article in the October 2014 Imprimis or his book, The Pity Party: A Mean-Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion.